11 days left in 2017, 11 tracks on my 2017 CD, "A Message in the Mess." Follow this free, song-a-day mini-podcast countdown. CD available on itunes, spotify and this site.
New Year’s Eve. And then there was one.
No song defined 2017 for me more than “Good Heart.” This year, it brought me a 4th place finish at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Troubadour competition. A Most-Wanted Artist selection at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York. An honorable mention from the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest in Colorado. And, as 2018 dawns, I am also a semi-finalist for the prestigious Bernard-Ebb Songwriting Award, awaiting the results next week.
I’m not gonna lie - I knew I had something with this one. The ink was nearly wet when I played it live for the first time at ChurchKorner house concert in New York. The crowd went wild. I’d brought them Berger Cookies, true, but I really like to think it was mostly the song.
“Good Heart” was a Frankenstein, pieced together during a terrible storm and a subsequent train ride, an amalgam of abandoned lyrics from a file in my apartment I call “The Lyric Orphanage.” In fact, most writers call such place a “morgue.” In a newspaper office, for example, it’s a collection of old cuttings, photographs, and information.
While snowed in, I emptied the file all over the floor: napkins, torn loose leaf, post-it notes, articles - a carpet of unfinished ideas. Some never pursued, others abandoned in their nascent stages (hence “orphanage”), all housed for someday when they might grow up into a song of their own. I sorted out a handful that appealed to me, looking for connections in the disconnected.
So, Okay, here’s an abandoned song that started getting too heavy handed on an Easter-egg metaphor, but had a couple good lines:
A poetry professor once showed me an eye-opening exercise. Each student wrote one poetic line on a slip of paper. He mixed them in a bag, drew 10, and lined them up on the overhead. “Is it a poem?” he said.
I could almost feel my brain forcing connections, building backstory, curating what I knew full well was nothing more than an accident, an unintentional collection. We can’t help ourselves. We’re hard-wired to do it. Might as well use it for good.
A shred of paper with one phrase caught my eye: “the bud, bloomed once, now a monument.” Man, I’d completely forgotten that. An orchid bloomed five times for my ex, but refused to bloom even once for me. Its leaves stayed a spiteful green, a living tombstone. I didn’t have the song … then. I started building now around that line. My brain stitched the unrelated ideas together. Now, it’s not even about me anymore, and I’m storyboarding whatever makes it cohesive:
The snowstorm wasn’t long enough to finish it, or to set it to music. I shoveled myself out and hopped a train to New York for a show. The hours on the train had me fidgeting, drumming on my knees.
We have a tendency to use the human heart to excuse a lot. Even when someone says “bless your heart” or a person has a “good heart,” it’s an insult or a consolation prize. Like: “He killed his mama, but he has a good heart.” An involuntarily machine chugging forward in us when we’d rather die gets a pretty bad rap and a pretty huge, unappreciated responsibility. So, what’s a good heart? One that physically works, when it feels like nothing else does. One directive: beat.
Having overworked at least one of the song fragments before, I knew to quit while I was ahead this time around. It’s a modern take on a work song, an anthem with a catchy repeat. And having drummed it out on my knees the whole ride to New York, it never felt like it needed much more instrumentation than percussion. It was another kind of heartbeat.
One of my ideas was to keep all the instrumentation percussion-based, with only a jazzy bass line to provide a complimenting melody to the vocals. Zach Teran had that in the bag. And for the percussion, Joel, my producer, knew just where to go – Dean Rossi’s house.
Dean is an avid collector of world percussion, and with one phone call, The Novelists and I were soon in his living room, shaking and clanking every strange object, collecting up a grab bag of banging implements. Trash symbols, guiros, agogo bells, djembes. We went back to the studio and tried them all, even the sound of rhythmic exhaling, until we found the mixture:
The melody was inspired by the chances I was already taking in the studio, rediscovering similarly abandoned sections of my voice. I intentionally wrote lots of head/chest voice breaks to force myself to get more comfortable transitioning.
Lastly, I tried out my other idea, a bizarre, scat-like backing vocal that sometimes veered into gibberish, other times into a stutter step of the main line, meant to emulate the heart murmur they found in me when I was a teenager. The one that turned out just to be an extra gurgle made by my heart, just doing its regular good job.
Heading into 2018, my heart is healthy – and I’m happy to say its contentment hasn’t suffocated my songwriting. Since “A Message in the Mess” was released in February, I’ve managed to both get engaged AND write another album’s worth of material. When you make a living pouring your heart out … you can’t help but be incredibly grateful to have so many people, like you, filling it right back up again. Happy 2018.